By Karen Lema and Panu Wongcha-um
Governments across Southeast Asia have a history of using laws and the judiciary to curb press freedoms – now, they have found a handy crutch to lean on as they intensify clampdowns: U.S. President Donald Trump‘s “fake news” mantra
Most worrying to media rights advocates is that several countries are promoting new legislation or expanding existing regulations to make publishing fake news an offence. The fear is that, rather than focusing on false stories published on social media, authoritarian leaders will use the new laws to target legitimate news outlets that are critical of them.
“When the leadership of the United States consistently targets legitimate media reporting as fake, it opens the way for leaders the world over to do the same,” said Shawn Crispin, who represents the Committee to Protect Journalists in the region. “It’s a dangerous trend that is giving authoritarian and democratic regimes alike justification for targeting or shutting down reporting they don’t like.”
The term “fake news” has entered the lexicon of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose leaders commended the work done by their governments in countering its spread in a statement issued at the end of a November summit.
Like everywhere else, Southeast Asia does sometimes have a problem with information on social media that is intentionally false.
But there is little sign that the problem has been anywhere as bad as it was, for example, in the run-up to the November 2016 U.S. presidential election
Last week, after the Philippines’ corporate regulator revoked the operating licence of Rappler, a news site whose scrutiny of President Rodrigo Duterte‘s deadly war on drugs has been a thorn in his side, Duterte told reporters it was “a fake news outlet” that had been “throwing trash and shit all along”.
Duterte denied influencing the regulator’s decision, which was followed by the justice minister ordering an investigation into Rappler for possible criminal liability and the National Bureau of Investigation summoning its CEO to answer a complaint related to cyber-crime.
John Nery, associate editor and a columnist at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which has also come under attack from the government, said “fake news” is now glibly used by people who don’t like what they hear.
“Unfortunately for us, those parties include the government of the Philippines. So it is used to intimidate,” he said
Anti-fake news legislation, which would impose fines and prison terms of up to 20 years for spreading false information, is under consideration in the Philippines.
Philippines presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the legislation was being promoted by two senators not the Duterte administration.
Asked if the government felt the need to regulate fake news, Roque said: “We believe in free market place of ideas.”
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